17.788 "Real Soon Now!" or "Who Cares?"

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Fri May 07 2004 - 16:54:29 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 788.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Sat, 10 Apr 2004 08:57:12 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: deferral and dismissal

    This is in response to Alexandre Enkerli's musings on "Real Soon Now" and
    the future in Humanist 17.783. He notes the paradoxical sense of futurity
    with respect to computing and so the need to distinguish between blowing
    the whistle on postponement and refusing to accept technological progress.

    I don't think we need to spend any time on the Real Soon Now promises of
    advertising, though adverts do try to appeal to what people want,
    and these wants are shared by the likes of us. But the paradox that
    Alexandre points to does get interesting when it surfaces in the literature
    we spend our time with. Take the literature of AI, for example. I have
    noticed two common rhetorical moves there whenever the failure of the
    strong AI project becomes the subject: dismissal and deferral. Either the
    failure to perform as promised is dismissed as unimportant, or the promise
    is deferred to a future date -- "Who cares?" or "Real Soon Now!,". A
    variant on the former is to dismiss the perspective from which the
    questioner is speaking, which can be done in a variety of strengths and
    styles, from outright contempt to the admirably subtle recognition that
    something has been said but is too insignificant to engage with, as if
    noticing for a brief moment the buzzing of some tiny insect that has flown
    into the room. I used to see this happening some years ago whenever I
    discussed ideas on humanities computing with a friend of mine
    in CS -- a slight, momentary change in his facial expression before
    his eyes glazed over.

    For a high-powered example of both dismissal and deferral see Allen Newell,
    "Metaphors for Mind, Theories of Mind: Should the Humanities Mind?", in
    James J. Sheehan and Morton Sosna, eds., The Boundaries of Humanity:
    Humans, Animals, Machines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991):
    158-197. Terry Winograd's following piece, "Thinking Machines: Can There
    Be? Are We?", makes a great antidote.

    Recognizing the failure of the promise is crucial -- I would say the sine
    qua non for understanding the promise and making it flower for us. It is to
    recognize that the horizon is what it is because it cannot be reached,
    ever, and that the failure to reach it illuminates the energizing and
    creative difference between what we have and what we hope for, between what
    we can compute and what we somehow know but cannot compute. On the one
    hand, we have Turing's result to show us that computability has meaning and
    can infer that aspects of cultural artifacts will never be computable. On
    the other hand, we know from experience and observation that great things
    can be done. Is it not true that neither hand has much meaning without the



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    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
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